When my second child started sleepwalking at 3 years old, it was a night I will never forget. I had heard stories about an aunt who had to be locked inside her bedroom at night due to her wild sleepwalking episodes, but never imagined that I would get to witness this phenomenon first hand.
Of course, like any good mother, I immediately panicked and started researching what this meant for her. I am happy to report that it’s simply a phase many children go through and while it can be incredibly creepy – it won’t last forever…
*Please note: I am not a medical professional and this should not be taken as medical advice.
1. What is Sleepwalking?
It sounds scarier than it is. The medical term for sleepwalking is somnambulism which basically means that a person moves around or performs activities as if they were awake but they are, in fact, asleep.
2. Understand the Sleep Cycle
To truly understand when and how sleepwalking occurs, you must understand the sleep cycle.
There are 4 stages of sleep plus the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage. Sleepwalking occurs during stage 4 when a person is transitioning from a deep sleep to the lighter REM sleep and they get stuck halfway.
Every night we go through several sleep cycles each one is an average of 90 minutes but it varies depending on age. Young babies can go through a full sleep cycle every 45 minutes which explains why they wake more often. So while most sleepwalking occurs within the first 1 – 2 hours after your child goes to sleep – it can also occur at any time of the night depending on their sleep cycle.
3. It is Hereditary
I cursed my sleepwalking aunt – or rather, she cursed us. It is 10 times more likely that a child will be prone to sleepwalking if it runs in their family.
4. It’s not just “walking”
Sleepwalking does not always manifest itself as a person wandering around while fully asleep. In young children, they may only sit up in bed and look around or move their hands (super creepy to watch on a video baby monitor btw)
Sleep talking is sleepwalking’s less offensive cousin and usually occurs in the same manner. But not everyone who sleep talks sleep walks and vice versa.
If your child is prone to sleep talking, it might be an early warning sign of sleep walking OR sleep talking may be the extent of their night time extra-curricular activities.
In my experience with my daughter she had exhibited many cases of sleep talking prior to the first time I ever caught her sleepwalking. Her sleepwalking episodes have ranged from getting out of bed and wandering around to full out tantrums throwing stuffed animals around her bedroom.
5. The Powerful Subconscious Mind
I was always bewildered by the fact that my 3 year old daughter could manage to climb out of bed, walk down the hallway in the pitch black without bumping into anything, open the bedroom door and come over to my side of the bed (where she proceeded to stand there and say absolutely nothing until I opened my eyes because I could feel her breath on my face).
The subconscious brain is powerful and the things it stores within it are endless. I’m certain my daughter could navigate our entire house while she was sleepwalking. It’s also quite impressive that her subconscious brain has learned the floor plan of the three different houses that we’ve lived in.
6. Sleepwalking Triggers
While a person might be prone to sleepwalking because of their genetics – there are also many environmental/psychological factors that can affect them as well.
Illness/Fever – this was a big trigger for my daughter. We were pretty much guaranteed an eventful night when she was fighting a fever.
Lack of Sleep
A full bladder
7. Sleepwalking or just walking?
My daughter is infamous for her bedtime stalling routines. She’s never been a “good” sleeper and has woken regularly throughout the night since she was born (thankfully NOW she knows how to go back to sleep on her own but the first 3 years were rough).
The first time I found her sleepwalking I had no idea that’s what she was doing. I assumed she was up because she had a bad dream or needed another drink of water or trip to the bathroom. It wasn’t until I saw the glazed look on her face and couldn’t get a response from her that I realized what was happening. For the past couple years, every time she gets out of bed at night I wonder if she’s really awake and there are many times when it’s still hard to tell.
Ways to tell if someone is sleepwalking:
They don’t respond when you speak to them
They don’t make eye contact with you, even if their eyes are open
They seem disoriented or confused
They may be saying things that don’t make any sense or just mumbling words
8. Reaction vs. Overreaction
The number one thing you will hear about sleepwalkers is DON’T WAKE THEM UP! If you realize that your child is sleepwalking, the best thing to do is to guide them gently back to bed (you may have to do it several times).
While it can be incredibly freaky to open your eyes and see your half-asleep child staring at you in the darkness – restrain yourself from screaming!
Waking up someone who is sleepwalking could cause them unnecessary stress. They will be in a disoriented state and the confusion could cause them more harm than good.
They won’t remember anything in the morning and it’s best if you keep quiet about it unless they ask. Knowing about their sleepwalking habit could give a child insecurities at night time, they may become fearful to go to sleep or be alone.
9. They will outgrow it
As tiny brains grow and develop they will learn how to handle their sleep cycles better. They may go months or years without an episode only to have one set off by one of their triggers but it doesn’t mean there is anything psychologically wrong with them, or that you need to worry.
10. Protect them
If you discover that your child is sleepwalking – all you really need to do is to protect them. Make sure their bedroom is safe (no bunk beds, floor is cleared of toys, etc). Lock the outside doors and/or windows and utilize baby gates near stairs if necessary.
Don’t over think the things they do while sleepwalking. While they are acting on subconscious it is normal for children to use bad language, urinate or do something else out of character while in this state. We’ve all heard of people revealing secrets in their sleep – but the dream world is mysterious place and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
If your child is having more and more frequent episodes, try to keep a log of what foods they’re eating, activities they’ve been doing or medications they’re taking to try to determine a trigger.
And of course, speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.